As a young woman coming of age in Washington D.C., Zoe FitzGerald Carter dreamed of strumming her guitar and belting out her songs for an audience. There was just one problem.
“Getting up to sing I had some bad experiences on stage, just totally melting down,” she said from her home in North Berkeley. “It was pretty devastating and performing didn’t seem like a possibility. So I took another direction.”
The path she followed led to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a thriving career as a freelance writer in New York City. And, when she relocated to Albany in 1996, Carter continued refining her craft. Eventually, her success as a writer helped her overcome her stage fright and led her back to music. On Friday, she celebrates the release of her second album, Waterlines, a beguiling set of songs exploring stylistic territory beyond her Americana comfort zone.
Growing up in D.C. in the 1970s, Carter soaked up the sounds of traditional New Orleans-style jazz in her living room while her father, a lawyer and dedicated drummer, rehearsed regularly with his New Sunshine Jazz Band. Several years of Suzuki violin training helped train her ear, but it wasn’t until she appropriated one of her father’s guitars that she found her calling.
“I became obsessed,” she recalled. “I had a great group of friends who I played music with in high school, and we spent a lot of weekends smoking pot and singing ‘I Know You Rider’ and ‘Friend of the Devil.’”
She learned to read music and briefly studied classical guitar in college, but stage fright derailed her budding singer/songwriter ambitions. Even during her busiest years as a freelancer for publications like The New York Times, Salon, Vogue, and The San Francisco Chronicle, however, Carter felt music’s absence as a creative outlet.
It was writing about her mother’s exit that opened a musical door for Carter. Her award-winning 2011 memoir about her mother’s decision to end her life, Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Loss, and Letting Go, provided a performance proving ground that paved the way for her to get back on stage.
“I had to go out and talk on radio, do interviews and readings, and I worked through my performance anxiety,” Carter said. “I love performing now.”
She didn’t entirely trade her pen for a mic. Carter still writes occasional columns, and the transition from journalism to music didn’t happen overnight. But the more she sang the strong she felt music’s pull.
“I went to a Ta-Nehisi Coates event where he said you have to go where the heat is, and I feel music is where the heat is,” Carter said. “I was playing in three different bands at one point, the Deadliners, an all- journalist group, the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Tribute Band, which was like going to grad school for songwriters, and Sugartown, the band I play my original songs with at venues like Freight & Salvage, The Back Room, and Rancho Nicasio.”
Sugartown was the group featured on her debut album, 2018’s Waiting for the Earthquake, an impressive project that introduced the work of a songwriter with a vivid but disciplined voice. With Waterlines, which was produced by Fantasy Studios’ Jeffrey Wood, she’s extended her stylistic reach and her circle of collaborators, working closely with musicians like drummer Dawn Richardson and keyboardist Julie Wolf.
Some of the songs continue down the folky tributaries she plied on Waiting for the Earthquake, like her sharply observed “Owl in Kensington” and elegiac “Only Girl.” But other pieces change up the instrumentation and textural references, particularly the jazz-tinged “These Words” and “Saturday Man,” which feature the burnished trumpet and flugelhorn of Erik Jekabson.
“One thing that really changed the palette was that I spent a week with Hindy Bare, a keyboardist who lives in San Diego, co-writing the songs ‘These Words’ and ‘I Want to Be a Teenage Boy,’” she said. “I’m starting to play with jazz chords and experimenting away from the straight Americana folk vibe. I’ve always pushed myself to do the more difficult things and some Brazilian influence has crept in lately.”
Carter is working on a novel and continues to write occasionally for newspapers and magazines. Songwriting is the realm where all of her creative passions come together.
“I’ve taught songwriting and memoir writing and I’ve thought about a lot about what links them,” she said. “Good writing is good writing, whether it’s non-fiction, a novel, or a song. All the years I spent working on words and shaping phrases words came into play songwriting. It’s all storytelling.”